The hepatitis B community recently lost its much-loved advocate, resource and “mom,” Sheree Martin. She was co-owner of the Hepatits B Information and Support List from 1998 to 2011 and comforter and consultant to thousands of people around the world who live with hepatitis B.
The reach of her kindness and wisdom cannot be under-estimated. In the early days of hepatitis B, when medical treatment was misguided and stigma ran rife, Sheree nurtured a safe, online community that provided reassurance and accurate medical information. For many, it was the first time they were able to share the confusion, loneliness and frustration of living with chronic hepatitis B with people just like them.
The email list was created in 1998 at a time when there was nowhere to go to learn how to tell family members or loved ones about hepatitis B, or how to tell a child she was infected, or where to go for competent medical care.
Sheree grew up in rural southeastern Ohio and faced a hardscrabble life. She had sparkling green eyes and a gentle Appalachian twang. Her no-nonsense demeanor and nurturing heart would help set the tone of the email list.
Years earlier, at age 26, Sheree experienced fatigue and abdominal pain. “I kept wondering why I was so darned tired. Was it because I had been working at least two to three double-shifts a week as a nurse and had a young child?” she recalled in an interview several years ago. She was hospitalized and woke up in the isolation ward after doctors diagnosed her hepatitis B. That was her first taste of stigma.
After she became pregnant, doctors urged her to get an abortion because of her hepatitis. Sheree persevered and gave birth to twins. Eventually, growing bouts of fatigue and other symptoms forced her to leave nursing.
She may have been home-bound, but she used her nursing experience, curiosity and writing skills to search online for hepatitis B information. In 1998, she came across the newly-created hepatitis B email. She hit paydirt, and the feeling was mutual. A few months after her first post, she was invited to moderate the list with Steven Bingham. Soon, she was also contributing to a medical research list focused on viral hepatitis.
With empathy and wisdom, Sheree would comfort those facing rejection, worsening health and relationship challenges. She was the one to send the email that a list member desperately needed in the middle of the night when fear of illness, death and isolation proved overwhelming. She was also the kind disciplinarian gently reminding list members to rein in their egos when arguments arose.
In one post, Sheree wrote, “There have always been only two rules on this list: Be nice to each other and no promotion of products. Now some of you are becoming dangerously close to being ‘not very nice’ to others. We don’t play that way here, and have no need or desire to argue with one another. I, for one, have much more important things to do, such as enjoy life to the best of my ability, and to learn through having an open mind. :-)”
Sheree may have lost her physical health because of hepatitis B, but she informed and comforted thousands around the world—far more than she could ever have reached working in a small-town Ohio hospital ward. She often said that having hepatitis B and running the email list gave her more friends and purpose than she would have ever expected.
Because of her work, Sheree traveled to patient conferences organized by the Hepatitis B Foundation, which later provided financial support to maintain the email list. Today, the email list has members coming from as far away as Africa, China, Australia and India.
“Sheree made a difference in many lives,” the current list “mom,” Michelle, wrote about Sheree. “It was hepatitis B that brought our paths together. Remember, there is a silver lining in everything. Even though this virus has caused us pain as we face our mortality, it has also brought us new friends to share our fears and commiserate with. It has given us insight into what matters most in life.”